Omar Little, The Wire’s unforgettable, queer stick-up king once told Detective Bunk Moreland “A man got to have a code.”
I wonder if the man who attacked my girlfriend in the street a couple of months ago had a code. She dared to call him out after he threw a Coke can at her from his car. He leapt from the driver’s seat, towered over her, screamed “slut” in her face and spat at her. Was this response to the outrage of a woman calling out his behaviour what his code dictated? What about his friend, who looked on silently from the passenger seat? Or the big men on the road who walked on by? What of their code?
When I was growing into adulthood, I certainly adhered to a code. I convinced myself it was an honourable one, but in reality it was destructive and toxic. I believed it revolved around friendship and loyalty but it was more concerned with violence. I don’t mean violence as a last resort, in defence of oneself or those closest to us. I mean violence as a pre-meditated response to some disrespect or violation, suffered by me or my friends. Even if my conscience pleaded otherwise, I was bound by duty to seek retribution.
I was lucky. Before it was too late, I clocked that my way of thinking would ultimately consume me, one way or another. The choices I made weren’t rational for me. They were less about my material conditions and much more about my misguided understanding of what it meant to be a man. I found belonging and a home for my restless energy in the boxing gym, and for my darkest thoughts in books. I was committed to the process of unlearning toxic masculinity. I’d found a new code to follow.
“When I was growing into adulthood, I certainly adhered to a code. I convinced myself it was an honourable one, but in reality it was destructive and toxic.”
As an adult I began working with boys making the same choices I made. I was well-placed to lead them towards a different understanding of masculinity. One that doesn’t orbit a clenched fist, allows problems to be solved with words and treats all women as human beings, not objects or possessions. Key to being good at my job was practicing what I preached. It was no good talking about it. I had to be about it.
So when my girlfriend called me, angry, shaken and upset, and told me what happened on the high street, how should I have responded? How would I have advised the boys I mentored to react in the same situation?
I was disgusted. I was furious. And I was duty-bound to find my girlfriend’s attacker. He had intimated during his rant that he lived in the area ‘and some bitch’ wasn’t going to ruin his day. Now I was going to get hold of him and smash him up. My conscience bubbled quietly beneath the surface. I ignored it.
Before I jumped in the car, I turned to my football team’s group chat for counsel, and fired off a message filled with talk of retribution. One of my teammates messaged me back separately. He told me that more than anything else, my girlfriend needed me to just be there for her. Up until that point, my mind had been fixed on one thought. My response to the violent misogyny she had endured was the promise of more violence. So much for my new code.
My conscience piped up. I had a clear choice. Comfort my girlfriend, or find her attacker and throw hands. I knew what I should do, but I cowardly passed the buck. When I arrived at my girlfriend’s door, I asked her what she wanted, and she wanted violence.
“My response to the violent misogyny she had endured was the promise of more violence. So much for my new code.”
Now we were both in the car, circling the block, confronted with the very real possibility that we’d find this man. She too had bought into the notion that it was my duty to seek retribution. And I’d have felt less of a man if I proposed something else. Maybe she knew this. Maybe, in the midst of it all she was worried about my fragile ego. How ridiculous is that? What does that say about my so-called unlearning toxic masculinity? Or maybe she simply wanted some form of justice, any justice, in a world where women routinely get so little.
Two adults, professionals, with much to lose, were about to take a huge risk in adherence to a destructive way of thinking. Finding this man and spinning his jaw would achieve what, exactly? An act of pre-meditated violence could unleash any number of consequences, completely out of our control, the type of which I swerved as a teenager through a combination of privilege and sheer luck. I’d counsel the boys I mentored to prioritise comforting their loved one over everything.
As our circles of the block became less focussed, our gazes less fixed on the pavement and more on each other, it was clear that what my girlfriend needed now was to be listened to. She needed the fact that she did nothing wrong to be reiterated. She needed to be reminded that she wasn’t attacked because she called out a man’s behaviour, or called a ‘bitch’ and ‘slut’ because of the clothes she was wearing. She endured this hideous thing because the man was a violent misogynist. And the men who quietly looked on were co-signatories of that same toxic code.
I should have told her all of this when she called me. Instead, I said, “what? Nah, I’m gonna fuck him up.”
“There I was, tumbling backwards into my old way of thinking, trapping myself through the idea that I was duty-bound to be violent”
There I was, tumbling backwards into my old way of thinking, trapping myself through the idea that I was duty-bound to be violent. Way back when, it was about rectifying a wrong that one of my friends had suffered, and on this day it was in belated defence of my girlfriend. Police officers and soldiers routinely use this concept of duty to justify heinous acts. Young people cornered by circumstance into life on the roads, and the violence which often accompanies it, are similarly caged by duty. Of course, policy-makers resting comfortably at the top of the tree, responsible for the material conditions that funnel some young people into such a life aren’t trying to hear that as an explanation.
What is clear, is that toxic masculinity and violence as a matter of duty go hand-in-hand, like a monstrous embodiment of the handshake emoji. The obvious path which leads away from the latter, means completely turning our backs on the former. And let’s keep it real, that requires constant work.
Rob Kazandjian is a writer and teacher. Follow him on Twitter @RKazandjian
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